Fire engulfs New Jersey plastics warehouses; smoke closes schools

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 12, 2016 4:20 PM

By Barbara Goldberg

MAPLEWOOD, N.J. (Reuters) - Fire ripped through a pair of sprawling New Jersey warehouses storing plastic pellets on Friday, sending up a smoky plume so enormous it appeared as a cloud on weather readings from orbiting satellites and raising environmental health concerns.

The blaze, which forced schools to cancel classes on Friday, ignited on Thursday at Somerville Industrial Park in Hillsborough, 52 miles southwest of New York City. It was still burning on Friday afternoon, though firefighters had brought it under control, Hillsborough Mayor Frank Delcore said at a press conference.

Two firefighters were hurt, one suffering an eye injury, the other a leg injury, as teams from more than 30 surrounding towns battled the blaze.

The fire engulfed nearly 500,000 square feet, roughly the equivalent of nine American football fields, burning two of four wooden warehouses in the complex. The site is owned by the federal government but leased to private business, Delcore said.

Plastic pellets being stored in the warehouses caught fire, although the exact cause of the blaze was still under investigation, Delcore said. The pellets are used to make plastic molds, he said.

Radar readings showed the smoke spreading from the site of the fire at least 50 miles to the east, according to New York Metro Weather, a meteorology consultancy.

Thick smoke triggered health concerns and investigators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection were expected to remain on the scene throughout the weekend to test air quality.

"The smoke plume is diminishing rapidly," Delcore said, noting that at one point it so massive it was "showing up as a cloud on some of the satellites."

The mayor said health officials had been concerned about particulates falling from the plume, especially when winds became still overnight and tests showed an excessive level of particulates in the air. But those worries ended as the smoke began dissipating on Friday.

"I can say without qualification, I see no public threat," Delcore said.

Schools in Hillsborough were expected to re-open for activities over the weekend and for classes on Monday, Delcore said.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by David Gregorio)